Our Pledge To You

In ‘We’re Gonna Be Okay,’ identity issues trump the threat of nukes

Adithi Chandrashekar (from left), Avi Roque, Kelli Simpkins, Penelope Walker, Sarai Rodriguez and BrittneyLove Smith in the American Theater Company production of "We're Gonna Be Okay." | Michael Brosilow

Now for a return to the age of mutual assured destruction (MAD), the policy by which a full-scale use of nuclear weapons by opposing powers would cause the complete annihilation of both sides.

Scared yet? For those living through the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 it was a real enough threat as the reigning super powers — the United States and the Soviet Union — danced on the edge of the precipice, as schools held duck-and-cover drills, as determined survivalists began building bomb shelters and stocking them with canned goods, and as President John F. Kennedy made a speech to the nation (and the world), that may well have defused a potentially catastrophic situation.

Somewhat recommended
When: Through March 4
Where: American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron
Tickets: $38
Info: www.atcweb.org
Run time: 2 hours, with one intermission

Adithi Chandrashekar (from left), Penelope Walker, Kelli Simpkins and BrittneyLove Smith in “We’re Gonna Be Okay,” at the American Theater Company. (Photo|Michael Brosilow)

This is where it all starts in “We’re Gonna Be Okay,” Basil Kreimendahl’s purposefully anachronism-filled play, now receiving its Chicago premiere by the American Theater Company under the direction of Will Davis. In its quirky way the story Kreimendahl tells confirms the two abiding points of view that now hold sway more than a half century later, as some assert that the 1960s signaled the beginning of “the end of civilization” (as it was then defined), and others celebrate the monumental social changes the era set in motion.

Those changes are immediately visible in this production by way of the Chicago Inclusion Project casting of the show that inserts gender flips and racial diversity that were not yet a part of a 1962 scenario but easily propel the story into 2018 territory. And this compression of time and social change is a central conceit of the  play in which the confinement of two families in an underground bunker is the catalyst that unleashes a social revolution, and all its attendant dramatic shifts in the power structure of American society.

Ironically enough, the major (if unspoken) message in all this is the fact that now, even as nuclear war has reared its ugly head once again (and with far more unstable fingers on far more doomsday buttons around the globe), what still seems of tantamount importance is not survival so much as the assertion of identity.

It all begins with a backyard barbecue overseen by the steak-championing Efran (Kelli Simpkins, close to a caricature as the self-important white man and head of the household). Efran is trying to convince his rather hesitant African-American neighbor, Sul (the deftly understated Penelope Walker), to collaborate on the construction of a bomb shelter. And the deal is this: Efran will supply the money while the less financially secure Sul will provide the labor and construction skills.

Meanwhile, Efran’s well-educated, stay-at-home wife, Leena (Adithi Chandrashekar), is beginning to crave a job outside the home, while Sul’s more suppressed wife, Mag (BrittneyLove Smith), is starting to get in touch with her spiritual/mystical forces while also learning macrame. The couples’ teenage children also are in a state of shape-shifting, with both Efran’s son, Jake (Avi Roque), and Mag’s guitar-playing daughter, Deanna (Sarai Rodriguez, whose lovely voice and guitar playing bring the sweetest 1960s vibe to the show), unsure about their sexual orientations or how the world might continue to be peopled. This situation is only heightened (and playfully resolved) during their underground confinement.

Not surprisingly, it is Efran who is the most threatened and upended by all this change as he desperately tries to hold on to his privileged status. As for the wives, it is a bra burning for one and the quest for a more open relationship for the other.

William Boles’ backyard patio-to-bunker set design is a fine piece of minimalism, with Rachel K. Levy’s superb lighting capturing above ground and underground worlds, and suggesting both the advent of color television and our current digital screens. Jeffrey Levin’s sound briefly hints at television theme music.

There is nothing particularly revelatory in any of this. But the glowing faces of “the next generation” in the show’s final moments offer a bit more optimism than is usual these days. Maybe that’s enough.

Saraí Rodriguez (from left), BrittneyLove Smith and Penelope Walker in “We’re Gonna Be Okay.” | Michael Brosilow